Education

Wesleyan scrambles for millions to stay open

Community spirit offers president hope of a 'path forward'

Grace King/Golden Triangle New Service

Iowa Wesleyan University students walk Monday from the hall of science to the student union for lunch. Last week, Wesleyan’s board of trustees announced the university may close by the end of this year because of financial challenges. Trustees will reconvene Nov. 15.
Grace King/Golden Triangle New Service Iowa Wesleyan University students walk Monday from the hall of science to the student union for lunch. Last week, Wesleyan’s board of trustees announced the university may close by the end of this year because of financial challenges. Trustees will reconvene Nov. 15.

MOUNT PLEASANT — With more than $2 million needed to continue through the spring semester, Iowa Wesleyan University’s long-term fate is in the hands of Iowans, alumni and anyone who holds a special fondness for the small liberal arts school, its president believes.

With a little over a week before trustees convene Nov. 15 consider a possible closure, officials are scrambling to come up with a plan to find $2.1 million in relief to carry on through spring, or $4.6 million to last through December 2019.

University officials are reaching out to lenders, federal authorities, alumni and others. Students have even launched an online campaign.

The school’s plight was reported over the weekend by The Gazette.

“We are in a tough cash position right now,” Iowa Wesleyan President Steven Titus said Monday. “Our future is in our hands. We have a window here to respond. … This is a community that really awes me. It has stepped up so many times in support of this institution.”

The university, which dates to before Iowa joined the union, is the oldest, coeducational university west of the Mississippi River. Its small student body, now about 700, has included noted scientist James Van Allen, who discovered the Earth’s radiation belts, and astronaut Peggy Whitson, who broke the record for an American being in space the longest.

Although its latest financial perils are urgent, this is not the first time the Mount Pleasant campus has had to bring in outside help to recalibrate its finances.

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In 2014, it struck a deal with Wells Fargo, promising to enroll a certain number of students through 2018 — a commitment Titus said his school kept as its current enrollment is nearly double what it was in 2014.

But still in need of more help in 2016, it refinanced its loan and bond obligations to take advantage of low interest rates by securing a fixed-rate loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture worth $21.4 million.

USDA Rural Development at that time also awarded a $5 million loan guarantee to Two River’s Bank & Trust.

Grant Menke, state director of USDA Rural Development in Iowa, said the loan comes with a fixed interest rate of 2.375 over 35 years. All the money was advanced to Iowa Wesleyan, and the first two years of the payback schedule were to be interest-only payments. The school is current on its payments, Menke said.

Menke said the Nov. 15 meeting will be significant — most notably whether it shows Wesleyan has drummed up new revenue sources.

Titus said he’s optimistic, based on how the community and region has rallied around the school since news of its potential demise broke.

“We have been fighting like crazy for this institution for the almost six years since I have arrived, and we have lots of fight left in this institution and this president,” Titus said. “ ... I am absolutely resolved and committed to do everything we can to find a pathway forward.”

Longtime Wesleyan Trustee Mary Elgar said the university doesn’t have the healthy endowments or extensive donor networks some schools enjoy, leaving it without a solid financial base.

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But she also noted the moving online tributes and community outcry in recent days, sharing her own heartfelt history growing up by the school to parent alumni and university supporters whose footsteps she eventually followed.

“Wesleyan was an extended part of our yard for my brothers and I,” said Elgar, who graduated from Iowa Wesleyan in 1975 and joined its board in 1999. “My mom was a Zeta and held rush parties during my growing-up years.”

Today, Elgar lives two blocks from campus.

“The last couple of years have been so exciting at Wesleyan because we have grown our student body and have international students here — there are so many wonderful things going on,” Elgar said. “It’s just amazing that we haven’t been able to achieve the financial support that a fine institution like Wesleyan deserves.”

Wesleyan’s endowment is $7.5 million, Titus said. The last thing the university wants to do is use the endowment and deplete its resources even more, Titus said.

About 69 percent of students there are Pell Grant eligible, a subsidy the federal government provides for students who need to pay for college. Across the country, only 30 to 35 percent of college students are eligible, Titus said.

“We have a lot of families in financial need. It’s been very expensive for us to provide that,” he said, explaining why as enrollment at increases the school continues to struggle financially.

Students over the weekend launched a GoFundMe page promoting a goal of raising $10,000 and pleading, “Don’t let us get evicted.”

Nick Fencl, a senior at from Burlington, came to play football and baseball and stayed because he said he felt like the coaches cared. While Fencl said the student body is anxious about the future, there is hope.

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“The current situation is difficult, but it’s nothing new.” he said. “The glory of it is they’ve always found a way to get through it.”

Amari Funderburg, a junior from Chicago, said she is scared of what the future holds. After waiting outside Titus’ office Monday to give him a hug and say hello, Funderburg said she began applying to other universities, but if there is a way for her to stay at Wesleyan she would.

The pre-med student chose Iowa Wesleyan because of the small campus. She was raised by a single mom. Without the scholarships and financial aid available to her, she would have dropped out of college last year.

“Here, you’re seen as an individual, a student who has a future,” Funderburg said.

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